Brad Boner hiked into the Yellowstone backcountry, stepping over dead lodgepole pines stacked like giant matchsticks. Boner’s destination was the Mirror Plateau, a ridge of land that juts out of the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. He was looking for Mirror Lake.
In a park that sees over 3 million visitors a year, few places match the isolation of the Mirror Plateau. No roads reach the area between the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, and Mirror Lake is marked on few maps of the park – when it does appear alongside the picnic table and campground icons, it’s an unlabeled, blue blot.
Boner was retracing the footsteps of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which first explored the region. Boner had with him the photographs of William Henry Jackson, a photographer who accompanied the 1871 expedition. Boner’s goal was to find the exact spot Jackson stood when he took a photograph of Mirror Lake.
In the original black and white photograph, a shoreline extends into the background, paralleled by a string of men on horses, their reflections in the water blurred. Pine trees serve as a dark gray backdrop. Although the original spot where Jackson stood is submerged by water, Boner was able to find the same angle and snap a modern-day photo of the area, the pines baked off by a wildfire.
Boner’s trek was part of his ongoing work rephotographing the Jackson images for a book entitled Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time, which gathers Jackson’s early photographs with Boner’s shots of the same areas.
Several of the locations Boner sought out weren’t as difficult as the Mirror Plateau trek. “Some of the pictures that Jackson took are popular overlooks today, so there were some pictures where I was standing next to a crowd of tourists,” Boner recalls.
Boner’s system of re-photography is a mix of document research, extensive knowledge of the park and old-fashioned navigation techniques. “Jackson wrote a book of captions that went along with his photographs, and they gave a general location of each image.” Using the captions, combined with Hayden’s original survey and expedition members’ journals, Boner was able to pinpoint the general area where each photo was captured, using topographical maps and a compass.
But finding the exact spot was a different matter. “You try to find landmarks in the foreground and background, and you line those up. You try to find three different elements in three different ranges. By doing that you can get a really good idea of where Jackson stood.”
Boner’s photos, compiled right next to the original Jackson photographs, are striking in their similarity. The Jackson photographs are over 140 years old, and few of Boner’s photographs show significant change, outside of park development like roads and bridges. “For the most part, things more or less looked the same as they did in Jackson’s time. Individual rocks the size of bowling balls were sitting right where they were in Jackson’s photograph.”
But the park sits atop the Yellowstone Caldera, an area of high geologic activity. Over time, the park’s geysers and hot springs have made changes to the surrounding landscape. “The most striking changes were around Mammoth Hot Springs,” Boner says. “[The springs] are constantly laying down mineral deposits. Over about 150 years, they’ve grown and expanded.” In Jackson’s and Boner’s photos, the features are nearly unrecognizable.
Boner believes his project showcases the endurance of the national park mission. “I’ve got two kids, and the really cool thing after doing this project is that I can take my kids to Yellowstone, and they can see the same landscape that I saw when I was a kid and that Jackson saw 145 years ago.”
Jackson’s photographs convinced Congress to pass legislation to preserve the region and create Yellowstone National Park in 1872 – the first such park in the world. “The idea of the national parks is that these are special places that deserve our effort to be preserved for the next generation.”
“The national park idea of taking a special landscape and preserving it for our kids and our grandkids and future generations – that’s the most important message that I hope this project conveys.”
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